3 Ways You Can Make Empathy a Habit

As science has proven to us, empathy is innate to human beings. It’s just that sometimes, barring specific psychological disorders, that muscle atrophies. Whether it’s because of how you were raised, or your current workplace, or who you surround yourself with, the muscle can lose its tone when empathy is not celebrated, rewarded, or modeled.

And like starting a new fitness routine, we need to tweak our surroundings in order to support this new habit we want to develop. It’s like stocking the fridge with healthy food so you can easily make better choices about your nutrition!

I’ve been listening to Atomic Habits by James Clear, which is amazing. In it, he talks about needing to change your environment and context in order to create habits that stick.

So how does this apply to building a habit of empathy?

Well, we can’t always easily replace our colleagues, managers, family, or friends! But we can develop an awareness of how they may or may not be showing up with empathy that supports our own desire for transformation. And we can make our own small changes to increase our chances for success.

If you’re falling back on negative, old, outdated leadership models, what can you do to physically, psychologically, and emotionally change your context to cultivate more empathy?

Try these ideas:

  1. Make a commitment to bring empathy to all your interactions as best you can: You can only control yourself. Be the model in the conversation so you “train “people you work with that this is how you want the interactions to go. For example, ask more questions. Reflect back what someone says before you launch into your perspective to make sure you’re on the same page and you heard them right. Ask about how people are doing and really listen before diving into business right away. These subtle cues will get noticed and people will start to recognize that when they interact with you, they need to take a pause, see the other person, and engage in active listening.
  1. Share your empathy-building goals – out loud:  Clarity is one of the five pillars to being an effective empathic leader that I talk about in my forthcoming book, The Empathy Dilemma: How Successful Leaders Balance Performance, People, and Personal Boundaries. Don’t make assumptions. If you have a goal to be more empathetic, share it with your team and colleagues  Something like, “To help this team feel more engaged and be more successful, I’m setting a new habit for myself and I would so appreciate your support. I’m working on strengthening my empathy so that I can be a more connected leader for you. So if you feel that I’m not seeing or hearing you in our interactions, please call me out on it. Maybe you’ll all join me in this effort to bring more empathy into our team dynamic.”
  1. Change your routine, context, or environment: You can get creative on this one. It could be something as simple as a sticky note on your laptop that reminds you to “Ask 3 questions before starting anything in a one-to-one meeting.” Or revamping meetings to make space for not just on-the-fly brainstorming that benefits extroverts, but journaling time before offering ideas to support introverts. Or creating a rule that no meeting can take place without an agenda and any materials to review sent ahead of time. Implement a way for all team members to give feedback that feels safe and encouraged. Take a poll of your team and find out the best times to hold weekly meetings so you are supporting all lifestyle needs of parents, disabled team members, or those who handle elder care. Recognize someone each week who has exhibited empathy with a colleague or customer so that it becomes a public celebration.

Building an empathy habit does not require massive disruption. It’s in the small steps that we make progress. Find those small and easy opportunities to change your environment and context so your empathy habit can better stick.

Photo credit: Unsplash

Seeking Emotional Intelligence? Embrace Stoicism

This article stopped me in my tracks.

It’s an article from Jeff Haden, a contributing editor for Inc.  It so perfectly and succinctly lays out the entire premise of my forthcoming book, The Empathy Dilemma: How Successful Leaders Balance Performance, People, and Personal Boundaries. (psst, you can pre-order now!)

Too often, we conflate emotional intelligence with weakness, softness, submission and don’t even consider it to be in the same realm as ambition, steadiness, high performance, or courage.

And this view is SO WRONG. Because emotional intelligence unlocks a part of ourselves that enables us to be intentional and effective so we can succeed.

The article spells out some tenets of Stoicism, practiced by many of the famous Romans we know and love, including Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius

Stoicism is not the cold, emotionless, robotic approach we often equate with it. While the definition of a Stoic is a person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining, Stoicism as a philosophy is something else – something much more applicable to leadership and performance success in today’s world. From the article:

In simple terms, Stoicism has nothing to do with being stone-faced and emotionless. Stoicism is a practical philosophy that says while you will never control everything that happens, you can always control how you respond. If you’re a Stoic, you can still experience and fully embrace your emotions; you just try not to let your emotions control your actions, especially in a harmful way.

Being a Stoic means deciding the kind of person you wish to be, and then, when things happen around or to you, trying to be that kind of person.

Damn, I love that last line: …deciding the kind of person you wish to be, and then, when things happen around or to you, trying to be that person.”

Too often, leaders bring their own emotional baggage to their roles, and it comes out in all sorts of negative ways: inability to create trust, screaming at people when they make mistakes, fearing that if they are not the ones who come up with the good ideas themselves, they will be “found out” and many more I’m sure you can name.

But empathy requires you be intentional. To make choices rather than blindly react. To know your values and stay true to them, even when under pressure.

This is the fundamental reason why I preach that empathy AND high performance can co-exist. That it is Both/And, not Either/Or. If you have a healthy foundation, as presented through the five pillars of my forthcoming book, you can practice empathy and be very effective, not in spite of empathy but because of it.

According to the article, the four basic virtues of Stoicism are: 

  • Wisdom
  • Moderation
  • Courage
  • Justice.  

All of those require us to know ourselves well, our triggers, blind spots, and strengths, and adapt judiciously within a team environment so the ultimate goal can be met. 

This is why self-awareness is my very first pillar of being an effective and empathetic leader. If your own foundation is shaky, you have no room left to see other points of view, adapt and flex to different needs without losing yourself, or listen to ideas without defensiveness and fear.

A strong leader can effectively list and respond to another person’s experience, point of view, or idea without defensiveness and fear. They can see it as additive to the ultimate mission. 

It doesn’t mean they cave in.

It doesn’t mean they people please.

It doesn’t mean they even agree.

Empathy is about making the space to synthesize diverse ideas and, taking a note from the Stoicism playbook, tempering our own biases about them, weighing all options, having the courage to bet on someone else, and being fair to hearing the best ideas, no matter where they come from.


Which is why it is laughable when people say they don’t want to be empathetic for fear of being perceived as weak, or treated like a doormat. Nothing could be further from the truth.

If that is your view of empathetic leadership, then you don’t know what empathy means or what it requires. The best leaders can inspire, motivate, and perform because they are empathetic. They drive diverse teams to a common goal, thought understanding, listening, curiosity, and fairness. 
Photo Credit: Dario Veronesi, Unsplash

Can you Forgive a Brand for Lack of Empathy?

Years ago, I wrote a few posts about horrific customer experiences, especially one with a certain hot Internet retail brand. As I put on the one item I bought from them today, I reflected on whether I would actually forgive them for showing such a lack of empathy. I mean, it’s been years, right?

It got me thinking: 

When is it time to forgive a brand for a bad customer experience?

Is there ever a time for a second chance, when you have felt disrespected or unseen?

And how does this apply to us personally? Can we ever give a second chance to someone who has been unempathetic, whether they realized it or not? A friend, a colleague, a boss. And if so, how do we know when it’s time?

I do believe companies (and people) can learn from their mistakes and try to do better. See: Uber.

But I also know that, when it comes to customer loyalty,  in this day and age, we have options. Especially if the company in question saw nothing wrong with their behavior and never tried to make things right. There is a difference between how classy brands own up to their mistakes (well done, Alaska Airlines) and how others simply blame and complain.

Interestingly, I found this study that shows that when businesses humanize their leaders, like when you don’t see your local catering company as Acme Catering, but as Sue, Bob, and Joe who OWN Acme Catering, customers are more apt to forgive them for missteps.

Companies pay a very high price when customers feel disrespected, unseen, or even blamed. One negative customer experience can be a brand’s undoing. 

And if you want a masterclass in what a string of negative user and employee experiences can do to a company, see Twitter (now X). That platform seems to be a ghost town these days, with most people fleeing to Threads.

How can a brand bounce back from bad customer experiences? Well a few things need to happen

Accountability: Did the person involved or the brand itself own up to their mistakes, apologize, and transparently explain how things went wrong? Note: Simply throwing a discount code at someone is not the same as accountability!

Genuine Contrition: Does the person or brand genuinely sound like they are sorry for your experience? Are they taking steps to make things right or secure your loyalty? If they say “Sorry…”in the same tone my kid does when he is asked to apologize, you’ll know it’s not sincere!

Systemic Change: Did the brand or person look deeper and get to the root cause of the lack of empathy? Have they gone back to the status quo, believing this to be a one-off, or has something changed in their communication, hiring, processes, or interactions? If so, this may be a sign they are learning from mistakes and we should reward that with a second chance.

Humility and a Growth Mindset: Do they see your experiences as an inconvenience they have to deal with or as a learning opportunity to improve customer (and interpersonal) experience from now on? 

I still don’t know if I can forgive the brand that treated me so badly a few years ago. How they blamed ME for the shipping mistake without proof, for not getting back to me as promised,, and then arrogantly proceeded to justify their poor customer service with “We’re just getting so much business right now, we can’t answer every email.”Wow. Just….wow.

But maybe over time, if I think their processes (and staff) have improved, I may just give them a second look.

With people at work or in your personal life…..well, these same rules can apply. I’m no psychologist, but I think the most important thing with people in your life is to give them the opportunity to know there is a problem first, assess their motives, and give them a second chance if you can. Especially if they’re willing to learn from it because maybe they just didn’t even realize their behavior – and this experience is a great lesson for them.

But after communicating to them that this was an issue and working through it together,  if they continue to disrespect you by not seeing your point of view or actively listening (please know, this does not mean they just “do what you want”all the time!), you may have to reassess the arrangement. 

Photo credit: Brett Jordan, Unsplash

How Marty Maraschino Taught Me Resilience

Resilience might be eligible for word of the year. You hear it everywhere you go. We talked a lot about resilience during the Pandemic. How do we bounce back and adapt?

One definition of resilience is: The capacity to withstand or to recover quickly from difficulties; toughness.

Clearly, we need to embrace resilience as human beings. In a chaotic, unpredictable world where the only constant is change, you might drive yourself mad if you cannot adapt.

But more importantly, how is the skill of resilience strengthened, taught, or learned? Can it only be built when you face change or disappointment? Is it kind of like skydiving? You only learn how to really do it by jumping out of a plane?!

And how can I teach it to my son before he actually needs to draw on it?

Thinking back, I got lessons in resilience and rejection early. From professional acting as a child – where I never held on to any one opportunity too tightly and was on to the next if I was not cast – to participating in plays at school, I learned that rejection was not about me, per se, but about whether I was the right fit for a role. And that was nothing personal.

While I got many juicy roles in school plays, I remember the ones that stung. Particularly one. A school theater director organized a joint 7th, 8th, and 9th-grade production of the musical grease. And I wanted to be Marty Maraschino sooooooo badly. She was the sophisticated red-haired Pink Lady, brilliantly portrayed by Dinah Manoff in the movie version. My favorite line of hers was “I’m Marty Maraschino. As in cherry.”

Before the audition, I studied the lines. I watched the movie. I perfected my sexpot pout (even though I had no idea what I was doing at 13). The director somehow knew I wanted the role ao it was mine to lose.

And lose I did. While I have been a choir singer for a very long time, I was (and still am) very insecure about singing solo.  So I bombed the signing portion of the audition, singing Freddy My Love offkey and likely too softly.

The director even (sharply) asked me later, “What happened?!”I don’t know, but the role went to a much more deserving classmate who did a fabulous job. 

And I got the part of Dorothy the Cheerleader.

I loved that my school plays would often give names to the extras, so we didn’t have to simply be known as Cheerleader #5. But I could play Dorothy, and give her a whole backstory! I got to be in every dance number, sported a very fun 50s cheerleading outfit, and even got to do the hand jive with a cute boy during the big dance scene.

I learned from moments like that to process my grief over what I’d lost, but embrace what was in front of me – and make it my own. Play Dorothy to the  hilt and perhaps, maybe even steal the show (I mean, I was voted “Best Pickpocket” in the 7th-grade production of Oliver)

Another unexpected resilience lesson came when I was in middle school. I desperately wanted to be on the Drill Team, which was the middle school’s and high school’s dance squad. 

I loved to dance. Channeling Whitney Houston and Janet Jackson with my bestie to their iconic 80’s hits on her living room couch, I even gained some brief notoriety with an unforeseen gift and rhythm for dirty dancing

But my Achilles Heel was not being able to do the splits. Despite taking ballet and gymnastics as a little girl, this flexibility eluded me. I even remember following random remedies like stretching after a hot bath, doing 5 minutes a day, or splits against a wall. If you were on the Drill Team, you knew how to do the splits. High kicks and all of that.

That didn’t stop me from trying out….THREE YEARS IN A ROW. I tried out in 7th, 8th, and then 9th grade for the high school team. 

The feedback? I nailed the routines, my smile was magnetic, but I couldn’t do the kicks or splits. And the competition was fierce, so…others made the team when I did not.

With each disappointment, I still got up and tried out the following year. What could I do better? How could I finally limber up enough to do the splits? Could I make up for this inability with precision moves and bringing the energy? They now call this a growth mindset, but it just came naturally to me.It wasn’t about being praised, it was about my own innate desire to practice and improve. What could I tweak to change the outcome next time?

A popular girl’s mom was on the selection committee, and even told her to tell me how amazing I was at tryouts, that I had such a great smile, but that the splits stopped me. 

But here was what I consider the truest test of resilience.  Back then, there was no email so you had to go to the school on the designated day and check the list posted on the door. Once again, my name was not on it. But two of my good friends were. 

And I remember being on the phone in my kitchen with one of them, as we compared notes. Weeping in silence as we talked, I found a way to share in her excitement. Through tears, I said, Ï’m so happy for you! You deserve this.”She said all the right things – that she was sorry, and it wasn’t fair -, but in the end, she made it and I didn’t. On that phone call, at the tender age of 13, I learned how to hold my own disappointment in check while still being happy for my girlfriend. 

Talk about #hypewomen  – thank you, Erin Gallagher, for naming this needed ability, starting this movement in 2023, and showing how it only lifts all of us up.

None of this answers my initial question about how you can “teach” resilience without any real fire actually testing your strength.  There are some great science-backed ways presented in this article by Greater Good on ways to build resilience,  – change the narrative, face your fears, practice self-compassion, meditate, and cultivate forgiveness, but I submit that these are more like things you can do to shore up your foundation so when you need to practice resilience, you are ready. 

I don’t know if these tips actually build resilience, because I’m still not sure it can be built until you are actually tested. I believe they make your internal landscape more amenable and open to resilience, they “seed the soil”, so to speak. Happy to hear other opinions about this!

I’m curious how you have learned resilience in your own life, as a child or an adult. Do you intentionally do things to set up a better environment for yourself to be resilient?  Did you have good role models, or was this something you had to teach yourself? Please let me know!

Photo Credit: https://grease.fandom.com/wiki/Marty_Maraschino

You Are a Hot Mess AND a Masterpiece

“You can be a hot mess and a masterpiece at the same time.”  Hannah Corbin, Peloton.

A few months ago, Hannah Corbin uttered these words on a Peloton ride, and they stopped me in my tracks. Metaphorically, of course. I kept pedaling.

I can’t recall the context but I think it was about letting yourself “get ugly” in order to grow. No one looks their best when they are red-faced, dripping with sweat, and struggling to cycle up a steep hill. And yet – doing so, helps you chip away at the work of art that lies beneath. 

That when you try, fail, get up again, strain, get uncomfortable, get scared, yet keep moving forward, you are working toward becoming your own masterpiece. 

AND not just working toward it. You already are a masterpiece.

It felt like she saw me. I feel like a hot mess most days, while I’m striving to be a masterpiece, a better person. It sometimes feels like everyone else has it together but me.

But we’re never just one thing or the other, are we? We can be two opposing things at the very same time. We can be striving and struggling while still being the best version of ourselves. 

That’s the journey we’re all on, whether you’re hopping on a Peloton bike, or trying to be a better parent, or seeking to coach and inspire your team with empathy. It’s a process. And just because you’re not at your ideal goal (which is fictitious anyway), doesn’t mean you are not both a hot mess in progress and closer to your destination.

And it also doesn’t mean you don’t have impact along the way, either. 

Even if you don’t believe you have perfected being an empathetic leader, human, or parent, it doesn’t mean you are not impacting lives yet. YOU ARE.  You are making incremental differences and changes. People notice when you see, hear, and value them. They are affected by your grace and compassion. They are moved to perform, deliver, innovate, and start their own journey to being more empathetic.

Don’t give up or assume it’s perfection or nothing. Just making the attempt day after day means you are a masterpiece. And if you are stumbling along while you do it, that’s okay, too. Both/And.

Photo credit: Ave Calvar, Unsplash

How Either/Or Thinking is Killing Us

Leaders, listen up: Have you ever heard the improv maxim, “Yes, and….?”

In my work researching, writing, and speaking to audiences about the power of empathy, a magnet has pulled me to one notion that gets in the way in almost every dysfunctional workplace or societal conversation.

Let me explain…

Our brains seem to defend us – yet often hold us back – due to cognitive dissonance.

From the article cited above:

The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people are averse to inconsistencies within their own minds. It offers one explanation for why people sometimes make an effort to adjust their thinking when their own thoughts, words, or behaviors seem to clash with each other.

Put simply, it is less distressing to us to hold one single view in our thinking. We want this one thing to be true OR this one other thing, but we refuse to believe they can possibly be both.  We crave simplicity.

But life is not always that simple. Others see things differently based on their own experiences, worldviews, philosophies, and personalities. 

Call it either/or thinking or binary thinking. Any way you slice it, this approach can lead to division, stress, mental health crises, families being ripped apart, and the destruction of our planet. Not to mention how it stifles creativity, innovation, and collaboration at work.

The either/or approach to leadership and relationships is broken. It got us into our current mess. It’s not working for us.

As leadership paradigms shift in the new era of work and as society demands more collaboration for its own survival, we are called to embrace dialectics

To simplify, dialectics is understanding that we can hold two seemingly contradictory things to be true at the SAME TIME.

We can be empathetic and high-performing.

We can be compassionate and competitive.

We can be kind and ambitious.

We can be empathetic leaders and still make tough business decisions.

We can care about our people and still hold our personal boundaries.

We can be stewards of the environment and still reap financial rewards.

We can turn to alternative energy and reskill our people.

We can marry purpose with profit.

We can deliver great results and do right by our teams.

And when we extrapolate this out to our lives outside of work….

We can disagree and love each other.

We can care deeply and have to let go.

We can care about the collective and also prosper individually.

We can enjoy nice things and still be good to the environment.

We can be gentle but still get our point across.

We can guide behavior without abuse or shame.

We can both be right. Now, the question is, how will we move forward?

In our world and workplaces today, it no longer serves us to focus on either/or thinking. We must embrace BOTH/AND.

Think about all the innovations your organization is missing out on because your leaders are clinging to command and control leadership. Never leave the door open to new perspectives, insights, information, or possibilities.

We have the capacity to hold two things to be true at the same time. It just may take practice.

For your organization, and for our world, it’s time we embrace the power of BOTH/AND. Abundant, inclusive, both/and thinking will get us out of our current dysfunction.  Are you ready to see what’s possible?!

Photo Credit: Fly D on Unsplash

So, This happened This Year…Best of 2023

As we careen into the holidays and end-of-the-year hoopla, I wanted to share some reflections with you on the year that was 2023 here at Red Slice and offer some best-of hits for your enjoyment.

This year, I was honored to present more empathy workshops for leadership training programs and conferences, interview amazing guests on The Empathy Edge podcast, and even deliver powerful brand story work to amazing clients.

Here, in no particular order, are some of my favorite podcast interviews and blog posts from this year. Hope you enjoy!

My favorite 6 episodes from The Empathy Edge podcast (although that’s like asking which child is your favorite!):

My Favorites Posts on Red-Slice.com

As we go into 2024, I am still putting together my plan and goals. I know I want to continue working towards Joy, Impact, and Magic, as I did last year as I said last year at this time, (it’s okay to renew your themes and goals if that serves you. And I can’t WAIT to share my newest book with you, The Empathy Dilemma: How Successful Leaders Balance Performance, People, and Personal Boundaries – coming September 2024!

Wishing you a joyful holiday season and merry new year. As our world reels from so much tragedy, hate, and war, may we continue to find ways to find the light in the dark and bring empathy, kindness, and joy into our own homes, workplaces, and communities. This is the way.

Are You Outsourcing Empathy in Your Organization?

My 9-year-old son recently left a note on his dirty breakfast dishes:

Can u pls take care of this ☹️Thanks

The fact you must know is that he placed the dishes on the counter right above the dishwasher. The ultimate in lazy maneuvers. I mean, writing the note took him longer than putting the dishes away!

While this provided a great laugh over on social media, it got me thinking about the primal nature of laziness and how it shows up in our organizations.

We see laziness as the customer service rep who can’t be bothered to listen to your real issue and look into possible options.  It’s just easier to tell you nothing can be done.

We see it in the leader who claims that adopting a more empathetic approach is too hard and takes too much time and then falls back on the old ways of doing things. Which are dying, BTW.

We see it in the colleague who decides getting to know other team members is a “waste of time” and forgets the importance of building relationships and connections in order to get things done.

So that is the answer?  Here are some options leaders like to think they have:

  • We outsource empathy to HR
  • We outsource empathy (hopefully) to AI
  • We strengthen the muscle ourselves

Let’s parse these out:

Trying to outsource empathy to HR is like a parent trying to outsource love to their child’s teacher. It doesn’t make any sense. Do they outsource kindness, courage, and effective communication? The point of empathetic leadership is that your team members know you, their leader, have their backs and see, hear, and value them. That is the only way for you to reap the benefits of empathy, including increased engagement, performance, loyalty, and creativity. It needs to be woven into the way we interact with each other. It’s not a need I “go to” someone else to fulfill.

Trying to outsource empathy AI is trickier. There are empathic AI technologies available that are helping organizations strapped for resources or staffing to provide individualized guidance and interactions in industries such as healthcare, higher ed, and finance. But the organization’s leaders have to strengthen their own empathy in order to build it into the AI models and ensure the holistic customer experience is consistent and engaging. 

Strengthening your own empathy is the smart choice. Just like going to the gym, you can build that innate human muscle if it has atrophied. You just need to put in the reps.  This is why I wrote The Empathy Edge and speak at leadership trainings, keynotes, and customer events. To clarify what empathy looks like at work (and what it is most certainly NOT), and give you actionable tips to strengthen your empathy. The results may not be immediate (who gets six-pack abs on the first day at the gym?) but over time, this is the more sustainable option that you will carry with you to great success, no matter what team you’re leading or what role you are in.

If you’re tempted to outsource empathy, please think about the reason why.

Are you too scared or feel too vulnerable to connect with your people or customers with empathy? If so, you may need to do some work on your own strengths and blind spots. And what causes that fear. Is it insecurity, defensiveness, low self-esteem?

Are you strapped for time and overwhelmed? If so, perhaps prioritization is the issue and an understanding that the work of leading IS connecting and engaging with your people. If you don’t have time for that, you may need to reassess how you spend your time. 

Do you think machines can “do it better? If so, who is teaching these machines? Where are the inputs coming from? And what happens when people interacting with AI dip in and out of workflow between humans and machines? We abhor inconsistency. That seems like a big risk you don’t need to take that could have catastrophic implications on your customer or employee experience. And also, no, to the question above. Empathy is an essential human trait about human connection. Machines will never be able to fully replicate it, even if they are able to imitate it in some scenarios.

Empathy is the most important leadership skill going into the 21st century. You can definitely augment empathy by shoring up your HR team and investing in empathic AI solutions. But you don’t want to outsource it without building it yourself because if you really believe that is possible, then you’re making yourself obsolete.

Photo Credit: Maria Ross

Gratitude Leads to Empathy

The reports are in. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you are hearing more and and more about how having an attitude of gratitude enhances our lives – and our performance.

This is not some simple hack of Pollyanna thinking. Studies show that a sustained practice of gratitude improves heart health, increases resilience, improves sleep, provides great mental well-being, and even improves overall health and well-being.

Gratitude increases our emotional intelligence and empathy.


When we practice gratitude, we get out of our selfish center and notice what is around us. Including other people. I personally find gratitude grounds me. It literally causes me to slow down, lower my blood pressure, and calm my monkey mind.

Pausing is essential to building empathy. In order to see things from another person’s perspective, we’ve got to be able to SEE them, HEAR them, NOTICE their tone, body language, and facial expressions. 

Steadying yourself to think about what you can be grateful for enables you to slow down enough to notice who and what is around you.

In my leadership trainings, I often talk about the need to slow down. Going so fast is making us less effective and productive. Quite frankly, when we’re racing (when I’m racing), I tend to do a half-a** job at any one thing! You may feel this, too.

I’ve talked about this with leaders on my podcast before. That need – but more importantly, that ability – to force yourself to slow down in the face of pressure, stress, and chaos. Some of the most impactful interviews I had about this were with Paul Marobella, when he spoke about leading through crisis. We’re talking 9/11, the financial downturn of 2008, and most recently COVID. And Chris L. Johnson, who speaks about how when leaders pause, they win. I highly recommend you check out their episodes. 

This month, we celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. Despite this holiday being fraught with misinformation and revisionist history, I believe it’s valuable that we honor the truth AND take that needed step back to be thankful. Thankful for what we DO have, for those in our lives, for any privileges we enjoy, and to take that step back to slow down and use our senses.

That is how we can gain emotional regulation and connect better with those around us. Whether coworkers or community, friends, or family. Embrace gratitude wherever you can and see how it enhances your relationships with others and yourself going forward.

Photo credit: Maria Ross

The Most Painful And Poignant Empathy Teacher

There is much talk about social-emotional learning in schools all over the world today. And I am here for it. In addition to helping kids from a young age regulate their emotions, negotiate conflict, and constructively express their feelings, there are many efforts to teach children about empathy.

Not “teach them empathy” per se – that is a skill innate to us as human beings – but to help them recognize empathy and strengthen that muscle so it becomes so strong, it is part of their self-identity.

I spoke about Golestan in my book, The Empathy Edge. An innovative immersion school that centers empathy at the root of their curriculum. The results speak for themselves. When their kids matriculate into public high schools, they are often the ones with higher grades, better communication skills, and the ability to diffuse conflict. Teachers want these kids in their classes!

But there are many such efforts afoot to help kids tap into their innate empathy early on, before the muscle has atrophied. Among them, the great work of Ed Kirwan and the team at Empathy Week, which is a worldwide program to help kids practice empathy through the power of film. If you missed it, please check out my podcast interview with Ed to learn more!

 But what we talk about less is how much we learn about empathy from our children.

Being a parent is an exercise in self-development every damn day. In order to teach your child life skills, you kind of have to master your own. You are put face to face with yourself in the mirror of your own foibles and deficiencies. Especially when teaching your kids about emotional regulation, forgiveness, and vulnerability.

When you teach, you need to model. And that is where the deep humility and learning come in.

My husband and I pledged to make emotional learning a core part of our son’s upbringing. Our hope is that he is better at communication, emotional literacy, and collaboration than even we are! A tall order. And one that requires us to reassess where we are in our own development of those skills.

Every day, I am forced to practice empathy because of my son. To meet him where he is, even when I don’t agree. When I am too tired or overwhelmed to listen. When I am trying to get us out of the house to school on time and he has still not put his shoes on.

And in the bigger stuff: I need to practice empathy that he is not me and I am not him and we see the world differently. He may not love game shows and reading mystery novels like I do. He may not (gasp!) desire to get straight A’s. He may not want to forgive a friend who has hurt him, even if it is the right thing to do because he does not bounce back as quickly as I do.

This all requires me to draw every ounce of empathy I have, take a breath, and reach out to meet him where he is.

If I want to model empathy for my son, I have to practice it with him. Even if I don’t have a neon sign pointing at me that says, “Pay attention! This is your mom being empathetic right now!”

As I navigate social and emotional learning with my son, I have worked to fill in my own gaps. Through reading, podcasts, reflection and outside therapy. What are my triggers getting in the way of my own success? How can I be more self-aware of my emotions? How can I make space to listen rather than speak? How can I learn to refill my tank and take a breath so I can be present for someone else? How can I redefine success?

Kids really are the best teachers. 

Photo credit: Maria Ross